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Carneros: a reflection

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Since I’m in a Pinot Noir state of mind lately, here goes:

Of 173 Pinot Noirs I’ve scored at 90 points or higher since Sept. 1, 2012 (i.e. nearly six months ago), only 8 are from Carneros.

That’s a pretty dismal showing. As an appellation, I think Carneros has slipped in reputation compared to California’s other Pinot-growing regions.

It may be the weather, which is cool and foggy, or the wind, or it could be older plant material that’s not really suitable for the terroir. But I think it’s mostly the soils. Matt Kramer calls Carneros “a massive slab of clay and silt”; Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell, in “The Winemakers Dance,” describe Lee Hudson’s Carneros soils as “heavy with clays, gummy sediment that holds together pretty well until it becomes saturated with water”; and even André Tchelistcheff, generally credited with being among the first if not the first to plant Pinot Noir in Carneros, admitted (in “Great Winemakers of California”), that, while he thought the Carneros climate was ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, “we do not have in this region the soils I would love to have there.”

I’ve always found Carneros Pinot Noir a little lacking in richness, body and finesse. Acidity can be high. They can be sleek, elegant wines, but when you compare them to a profound Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast, they come off as lightweights.

To be sure, Carneros is a big appellation, and some areas are better than others. The sprawling flatlands, between where the Mayacamas foothills trail off and San Pablo Bay begins, are where most of the vineyards are, and it’s there that the soils are clayey and gummy. At higher elevations in the north, the soils become better drained, and the air is warmer.  Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot can thrive there, but there are sweet spots for Pinot noir also.

Once upon a time, 20 years ago and more, Carneros was the great, bright hope for Pinot Noir. Some called it “California’s [or America’s] Burgundy.” It seemed all that, and more. But then, reality gathered its forces and overtook fantasy. No region can be more than it is, no matter how much writers [or locals] hype it. The hard work of achieving excellence takes generations–as the Europeans have been telling us all along.

My top Carneros Pinots over the last six months, all scoring 90 points or higher, have been La Rochelle 2009 Donum Estate, Mira 2010 Stanly Ranch, Truchard 2010, Domaine Carneros 2009 The Famous Gate, Domaine Carneros 2009 Clonal Series Dijon 777, Carol Shelton 2011 Larson Vineyard, Kazmer & Blaize 2010 Primo’s Hill and Domaine Chandon 2010. All have managed to rise above Carneros ordinariness to produce wines of distinction and, in all likelihood, some ageworthiness.

  1. For me, Carneros’s reputation is also tarnished somewhat by being the most common grape source for the afterthought Pinot Noirs produced by so many Napa Valley Cabernet estates.

  2. Mike: Great point! I hadn’t thought of that.

  3. I wonder if irrigation water might also be a factor in addition to the soil? I worked on the Napa side of Carneros for several years and the water smelled and tasted awful.

  4. Sean: I never heard that.

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